16 years after Liverpool edged a nine-goal thriller in Dortmund to lift the 2001 UEFA Cup, Deportivo Alavés were back in a final, just the second major one of their history. It was their first ever experience of the Copa del Rey final and Barcelona’s 3-1 victory only slightly dampened the mood for the fans in blue and white, who remained proud of their heroes. In particular, there was one hero of their journey who stood out from the rest. Not four-goal man Edgar Méndez. Not their full-back duo of Kiko Femenía and Theo Hernández. Not captain Manu García. No, the poster boy of their cup run was coach Mauricio Pellegrino, who only arrived last summer.
In the 2015/16 season, Alavés won Spain’s second division to wrap up a return to LaLiga ten years after their last experience of top flight football. The man leading them back to the promised land was José Bordalás, but the brand of football he employed was far from exciting and it wasn’t even all that effective. Under the Spaniard, the Basque side topped the table, but they only scored the eighth most goals in the division – averaging just 1.17 per game – and they only won 12 of their 42 games, with only half of those won by more than one goal. The fact that they only boasted just the fourth best goal difference – of plus 14 – in the division suggested that they’d been slightly fortunate to win that league. The table never lies, but sometimes it bends the truth.
Aware that continuing this style of football on into LaLiga would probably lead to a sluggish start and the ultimate sacking of Bordalás anyway, Alavés took the pre-emptive decision to thank the coach for his hard work and to bring in a replacement. Enter Mauricio Pellegrino.
The move has proven to be a stroke of genius and the way Pellegrino has evolved this Alavés team makes the 45-year-old Argentine a strong candidate to win Spain’s coach of the year award – even if Zinedine Zidane will likely still win it because that’s how these things work. It’s not just that he led the team with LaLiga’s 15th ranked budget to a ninth place finish – their joint-fourth-best placing ever – and past the likes of Deportivo La Coruña and Celta Vigo to the cup final, but it’s the way he transformed this team that is the most impressive.
Although they were immediately labelled as defensive after the first few weeks of the season, the reason for those early negative tactics was that they faced trips to play Atlético Madrid and Barcelona at the Vicente Calderón and the Camp Nou in two of the first three weeks of the season. Almost every team plays in such a manner when they visit those to giants of the game, so it was logical for Rafa Benítez’s former assistant to set his side up conservatively. It was also effective, as they drew 1-1 at Atlético and even won 2-1 against Barcelona – admittedly with Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Andrés Iniesta only coming on in the final half an hour once the Catalan side began to panic.
Once those tricky fixtures were out the way, Alavés showed that they were a tactically flexible team and they very smoothly switched between formations, something they had rarely been able to do the previous year under Bordalás’ watch. From 5-4-1 to 4-2-3-1 and from 4-4-2 to 5-3-2, Alavés could shapeshift from week to week and even in the middle of games. What made this all the more impressive was the way Pellegrino was able to train his full-backs to play just as well in both of these systems, whether as full-backs or as wing-backs, which led to Femenía and Hernández being two of their players of the season.
Hard graft at their Ibaia training complex went into all of this on-field success and Pellegrino proved to be a very meticulous and forward-thinking coach, one who embraces technology and data and one who spends a lot of time perfecting tactics. He is the kind of trainer who cares about the little details and this translates onto the way his team plays on the pitch.
Given all of the above, it’s little surprise his name is one which is being linked with vacant jobs across Europe, from Seville to Vigo to London. Already Watford have signed up Marco Silva as their coach for next season, but Pellegrino had piqued the interest of those in the Vicarage Road offices before that and he remains a candidate for the Crystal Palace job.
It would surely be a perfect match if the Argentine did take over at a club like Palace, having already shown in the Basque Country that he possesses the necessary skills to evolve a group of players tactically, to help young players reach the next level and to teach a team how to defend against the bigger fish in their pond and to prey on the littler ones. With confirmation that Pellegino is to leave Alavés, whichever team secures his signature ahead of next season will have made quite a coup. Pellegrino is the real deal.